English and maths are crucial to life and work. We need to build consensus for a higher ambition for young people and adults.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute

Last summer Learning and Work Institute launched a Youth Commission. Its purpose is to consider how best to improve education and employment outcomes for 16-24 year olds in England. One of the five big challenges it has identified is improving literacy, numeracy and other key skills, but this is equally true for adults too.

In many ways this basic skills challenge underpins so many of the debates we face today. Changing technology and longer working lives mean we’re all going to have to adapt to change during our careers – literacy and numeracy help us do that. The government-commissioned Augar Review has lots of sensible proposals to build better technical education routes – literacy and numeracy will enable more people to access these routes. More public services are becoming ‘digital by default’ and improved financial capability can help people get better deals as consumers – literacy and numeracy are interlinked with these and other core capabilities.

Most people would probably agree, then, that literacy and numeracy are really important and increasingly so.

Unfortunately, our nation’s track record on these skills is poor. International surveys show that nine million adults in England have low literacy or numeracy, yet the number of adults improving their skills has fallen by one third in the last five years. And England and the US are the only countries in the survey where young people have poorer basic skills both than the OECD average and older people.

The risk is that we go backwards from a low base. How do we prevent that?

Setting our sights higher

Our Youth Commission held a roundtable recently to look at options for young people. The condition of funding that requires young people in further education and without ‘good’ GCSE grades in English and maths to continue to study those subjects has clearly been controversial. But before its introduction only one in 20 young people who didn’t get the grades had done so by age 19. Today that’s one in four. There’s clearly ways the policy can be improved, but England was a bit of an outlier in not continuing English and maths study after age 16.

But we also need to look at young people not in Further Education and those over the age of 18. How do we engage the 700,000 16-24 year olds not in education, employment and training, many of whom will have literacy and numeracy needs but may not want to return to education? How do we work with employers so that young people in work have the chance to improve their basic skills and benefit their employers? How do we increase the number of young people in further education and encourage them to improve their basic skills alongside and integrated with other learning?

We mustn’t forget about adults too. Two thirds of our 2030 workforce has already left compulsory education, and people leaving education today will have 50 year careers. Yet, despite an entitlement for free training for those that need it, the number of adults taking up literacy and numeracy training has fallen by one third over the last five years.

Learning and Work Institute research shows that the biggest reason adults give for not participating in learning is that they don’t want to or don’t see the need to. This suggests a huge engagement and inspiration challenge. How do we engage people in their communities, including through adult and community learning? How do we build greater opportunities to improve basic skills into support for unemployed people, including via Jobcentre Plus and by focusing on long-term career prospects as well as short-term employment?

For adults, we also need to be clear how improving their skills will meet their ambitions for their work and personal lives, and develop ways for them to fit their learning around often busy work and home lives. In other words, extra funding is important. But we need a clear strategy and approach to how we will invest in.

The case for a higher ambition for literacy and numeracy is clear. Now we need to work together to build and win support for a shared plan.

Find out more about our #FullyFunctional campaign for a level playing field for English and maths inlcuding fair access to alternatives for young people so they can get on in life.

Fully Functional

About Learning and Work Institute

Learning and Work Institute is an independent policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion.